Lawmakers Poised for Fight Over Nuclear Missile Subs

Congress is girding for a showdown over how to pay a looming bill of at least $139 billion for acquiring new nuclear-missile submarines.

The fight over these subs, which sailors call “boomers,” could erupt as soon as Tuesday, when the House Appropriations Committee marks up the fiscal 2016 Pentagon spending bill. The row will continue throughout the summer and will probably keep raging for years to come. 

The proximate issue is whether to pay for these subs and perhaps other assets via a dedicated fund within the defense budget. But more than how to pay the tab, the size of the bill itself may increasingly become an issue. The boomers are one of several new types of enormously expensive weapons that will start humming off production lines in the next two decades—bombers and ICBMs, upgraded nuclear warheads, more than 2,400 F-35 fighter jets and more.

Creating special funds may or may not help the Pentagon fit all of this into a large but essentially flat-growth defense budget. But it won’t prevent a bare-knuckle brawl between the military services and among competing constituencies in Congress over the money.

“We have to find room in the budget to do it,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the House Armed Services Committee in March, shortly after his confirmation, referring to the boomer program. “And there are going to be tradeoffs there. They're not going to get alleviated by calling the money this or that.”

Budget Pressure

The new class of boomer subs, called SSBN(X), will make as big a splash in the Pentagon’s budget as the 20,000-ton vessel itself will make when it first hits the water around 2030.

The Navy wants to buy 12 SSBN(X) subs to replace 14 Ohio-class subs that have plied the oceans since the 1980s.

Procuring the new boomers between fiscal 2021 and 2035 would add about $4 billion a year to the annual average shipbuilding budget of roughly $15.7 billion. If the Navy’s shipbuilding budget remains at its traditional amount, the service would have to forego construction of 69 other ships to build the boomers, experts say.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is already citing the SSBN(X) bill as justification to start spending money now, rather than later, on additional ships such as destroyers.

Congress took action last year in an attempt to address the coming Navy budget crunch. The fiscal 2015 defense authorization law (PL 113-291), created a special account to fund the subs—the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund—and placed it outside the Navy’s ship budget.

The argument for doing so was that the vessels are “national” assets, not just Navy ones. The fund, supporters say, will provide a mechanism to pay for the program without shortchanging the rest of the fleet. They compare the account to the Missile Defense Agency budget, which supports projects for all the services.

“It’s really about putting this in a different priority or category in the Pentagon as a national security asset, just like we did with missile defense,” says Joe Courtney, D-Conn., a member of House Armed Services from one of the states where the boomers are built. “You’re basically increasing the Navy’s share of the pie.”

To critics, however, the new account represents an invitation to uncontrolled spending for assets that many say have declining utility in today’s conflicts anyway.

The account’s existence has led other programs to call for their own special funds, they say. Such funds reduce pressure to control costs by moving the programs outside the services’ currently capped budgets, these observers say.

And, they point out, the Navy managed to keep a fleet full of surface ships and submarines going during the periods when it built the first four classes of boomer subs, so it can probably pull it off again.

The pressures on the Navy’s shipbuilding budget are “self-inflicted,” says Jacob Marx, a defense analyst with the Project on Government Oversight. The service can field the same number of warheads on fewer subs and can find savings elsewhere as well, but it is less likely to come up with tradeoffs if it doesn’t have to find offsets for added funds, he says.

Multiple Scraps Ahead

This year, congressional appropriators have weighed in for the first time on the new account—and they have rejected it. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, in its fiscal 2016 spending bill for the Pentagon, approved in May, would bar movement of money into the fund. Appropriators say it would reduce their ability to oversee the spending.

Proponents of the fund are ready to punch back. A skirmish could occur at this week’s markup. But appropriators will probably leave intact their provision blocking use of the fund and leave the fight to the House floor.

There they will meet resistance. Courtney, for one, promises to file an amendment to block the House appropriators move if their bill hits the floor as currently written.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of Armed Services and Appropriations in whose state many workers who build the sub reside, vows to stave off attempts to restrict or kill the fund in the Senate’s defense spending bill. Chip Unruh, a spokesman for Reed, said the senator is already talking with his Senate Appropriations colleagues about the House subcommittee’s provision.

A Question of Money

The issue before Congress is not whether to build the subs. America still relies on nuclear deterrence, and the subs are the least vulnerable part of the U.S. military’s so-called triad of nuclear assets, which also includes bombers and land based nuclear missiles. Under the New START Treaty, boomers will soon carry most of the U.S. warheads, up from about 50 percent today.

Rather than whether to build the subs, the questions are whether to build all 12 in the class and how to pay for them without breaking the rest of the shipbuilding budget.

The $139 billion figure is the Navy’s estimate of the cost just to acquire, not maintain and operate the subs. The Congressional Budget Office thinks the Navy’s cost projection could be low by about 17 percent.

Nor does that number include the cost of extending the lives of the missiles and warheads that the boomers would carry.

The Congressional Budget Office says the nation could do this differently and save some money by fielding eight boomer subs instead of 12 and allocating more missiles and warheads per sub. That option would save $21 billion over the next decade alone, the budget office says.

Advocates of the new boomer subs will have to defeat such suggestions. The proponents also need to fend off behind-the-scenes Air Force arguments in favor of spending some of the money meant for boomers on additional purchases of new-model bombers and ICBMs. In addition, a host of other defense priorities will be clamoring for money.

Already, the Air Force has suggested that it, too, could use its own separate fund for nuclear modernization programs.

"We’re looking to see how we can do something like that," said Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of Global Strike Command, at a press breakfast in January.

Some analysts worry that the floodgates will open to such pleas for special treatment, now that the boomer program has its own fund.

Authorizers vs Appropriators

The Armed Services panels are confirming some of the critics’ concerns as they look to expand the account’s uses.

Both the defense authorization bills—the House-passed version (HR 1735) and the Senate Armed Services measure (S 1376)—would permit the Pentagon to fill up the boomer fund with money not just from the regular boomer account in the Navy shipbuilding budget, as it now can, but from anywhere in the Defense Department budget.

But the House measure would go much farther in extending how the fund could be used. The House bill would enable the fund to also pay for building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and attack subs. The bill also would permit the fund to be used for manufacturing Navy vessels before they are authorized by Congress and for bankrolling warships incrementally instead of paying for them in their entirety in one fiscal year.

What’s more, House authorizers want money from the fund to pay for not just ships but also what the bill calls “incentives for investments in critical infrastructure” at nuclear-capable shipyards and even at those yards’ subcontractors.

The House authorizers’ proposals for expanding the fund are anathema to appropriators such as Republicans Harold Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of House Appropriations, and Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who chairs the Defense panel.

Appropriators traditionally recoil at anything that they think reduces their ability to clearly track programs or that only partially funds major assets and so puts future Congresses on the hook for them.

Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, said the pending Pentagon spending bill fully backs the administration’s $1.39 billion request for developing the new boomer sub in fiscal 2016—but does so via traditional funding mechanisms, not the special fund.